This week, I heard the extraordinary story of The Survivors’ Talmud (also known as the U.S. Army Talmud) — the nearly 3,000-page, foundational text of Rabbinic Judaism and Jewish life — that was published in Allied-occupied Germany after World War II on behalf of Holocaust survivors living in displaced person (DP) camps.
After surviving the war, many traditional Jews desperately wanted to recover not only their physical lives and their human dignity, but also their holy books, the embodiment of their spiritual, religious, and cultural lives. In 1946, survivors requested that the U.S. Army help restore the Judaism that the Nazis had tried to destroy by printing copies of the Talmud in post-war Germany, on the very same printing presses that had been used to produce the Nazi propaganda that helped perpetuate the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Ultimately, in what was described by Gerd Korman in the journal American Jewish History as a “distinctly American event,” the Talmud was published under the auspices of the United States Army, a remarkable symbol both of Jewish resiliency and of the uniqueness of American democracy.
The dedication page of this U.S. Army Talmud, written by Rabbi Samuel Snieg, survivor of the Dachau concentration camp and Chief Rabbi of the American Zone of post-war Germany, says it all:
“In all the years of exile it has often happened that various governments and forces have burned Jewish books. Never did any publish them for us. This is the first time in Jewish history that a government has helped in the publication of the Talmud, which is the source of our being and the length of our days […]
This special edition of the Talmud published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah. The Jewish DP’s will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American forces, to whom they owe so much.”
This dedication appears in many articles about this Talmud, and this week I had the privilege of reading it myself on the inside cover of an actual printed edition, which my colleague who shared the story passed around. It was exhilarating. It felt like holding a physical manifestation of the soul of the Jewish People and of thousands of years of Jewish history, including tragedies and triumphs, destruction, and redemption.
This coming week, we commemorate the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, on which we mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as other catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish People throughout our history. One of the deepest questions that emerges from any experience of grief is: What loss(es) are we mourning?
On Tisha B’Av, we read kinnot, Hebrew dirges or sad liturgical poems of lament. Many kinnot describe exile from Israel, along with violence against and dehumanization of the Jewish People. One of the kinnot, written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg in the 13th century, describes the public burning of Jewish books — including manuscripts of the Talmud and other sacred texts — in Paris. Many of us have seen images of Nazis throwing Torah scrolls and siddurim (prayer books) into fires in public squares, a recurring theme throughout Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple thousands of years ago.
We mourn the loss of human life and the exile from our homeland. We also mourn the burning of our books and the destruction of Jewish history, culture, and religion — the intellectual and spiritual lifeblood of the Jewish People. Burning books — of any people or culture — cuts individuals and communities off from their past and their future, and that is tragic.
At the same time, the dedication of the Survivors’ Talmud reminds us that books, and learning more broadly, are forms of spiritual and intellectual resistance and revival. Along with prayer, acts of lovingkindness and other rituals, learning is a hallmark of vibrant Jewish life and of what it means to be human. Reading, learning, immersing ourselves in the stories and wisdom of our tradition and inviting them to speak in new ways to our contemporary lives are acts of rebuilding and redemption that bring light into a dark world.
So, as we remember the tragedies of Jewish history and commit ourselves to protecting the safety, security, and dignity of our community and all people, we also commit ourselves to our books — to learning, to the building of joyous, purposeful Jewish lives, and to playing our parts in perpetuating the vibrant and enduring soul of our People for generations to come.
Rabbi Marc Baker